WWII Female Agents Behind Enemy Lines: Odette Sansom Hallowes — Part 2

If I had courage, it was my grandfather” Sansom told a London Sunday Times interviewer in 1990. “Every Sunday morning, after church, we were taken to the grave of my father, who was killed at Verdun 30 days before Armistice. “It will be your duty” said my grandfather, “to do what you can for your country. I grew up with this sense of duty”.

In my last article, I spoke about Violette Szabo and said that the British public became aware of the Special Operation Executive (SOE) female agents behind enemy lines because of the film, Carve Her Name With Pride.

Another film that did this was ‘Odette’, starring Anna Neagle as Odette Sansom Hallows, and Trevor Howards as agent Peter Churchill, who ran the SPINDLE network. As with the other film, Vera Atkins, the powerful SOE F Section assistant to Maurice Buckmaster (who incidentally, plays himself in this film), was present to supervise that only certain facts were given. If the public had known Odette’s entire story then, they would have been horrified, not entertained.

Odette was born in Picardy, France, in 1912, and married an Englishman, Roy Sansom. She was thirty years old and had three children when she joined SOE in 1942. The vivacious and elegant Odette was known by those at SOE as “a smart cookie” and she was sent to France to join SOE agent Peter Churchill.

The network began in the Cote d’Azure and moved to Annecy. Odette was Churchill’s courier. When she was captured along with Peter Churchill near Annecy in April 1943, knowing that they would probably be executed as spies, Odette convinced their captors that her commanding officer was her husband and a relative of Winston Churchill who knew nothing of her activities.

Before their capture, Odette organized some of the largest supply drops to the Maquis at that time. She was sent to the notorious Fresnes Prison and then taken to Avenue Foch where she was interrogated fourteen times by the Gestapo.

Odette Sansom

They burned her with a red-hot poker and pulled out her toenails. ‘I have nothing to say,’ she would answer each time. When she lapsed into a semi-coma, the doctor gave her an injection and she was taken to her cell. Except for five minutes each day, she sat in solitary confinement in total darkness. As a child, she contracted a serious illness that blinded her for three and a half years, as well as polio, which resulted in her being bedridden for months.

She later said that this helped her as she was used to darkness.  Nevertheless, her body was covered in scabs, and she suffered from dysentery and scurvy, her hair began to fall out, and her teeth became loose. Throughout all this, Odette never gave anyone away and other prisoners spoke of her as being a shining light in their time of trouble.

She was finally condemned to death on two counts, to which she responded,

Then you will have to make up your mind on which count I am to be executed because I can only die once.”

Instead of being executed, she was sent to Karlsruhe Prison in Germany and then to Ravensbrück where she was kept in solitary confinement. Had it not been for the camp’s commandant, Fritz Suhren who took a liking to her, she would certainly have met the same fate as the other agents.

As the Russians were about to seize the camp, Suhren packed his bag and left in a car taking Odette with him in the hope that she would tell the Allies of his kindness to her. Instead, Odette told the Americans who he was and left him there taking his suitcase which she later discovered had his pistol, a writing case, and his pajamas. Sansom testified in the 1946 Hamburg Ravensbrück Trials, which resulted in Fritz Suhren being executed in 1950. The officer responsible for her torture in Paris was executed in July 1944, for ordering the shooting of British parachutists captured in uniform.

Fritz Suhren

Walther PPK pistol taken by Odette Sansom from Fritz Suhren, commandant of Ravensbrück concentration camp, after he had driven her to the American lines in May 1945.

Later on, when Vera Atkins gave evidence at the Nuremberg trials in Germany, and at the same time searched for the other missing agents, “her girls” as she referred to them, Odette’s escape was able to confirm the identity of six out of thirteen who were taken to Karlsruhe with her: Madelaine Damerant, Vera Leigh, Yolande Beekman, Diana Rowden, Andree Borrel and Elaine Plewman.

Odette and Peter Churchill

Odette returned to England and married Peter Churchill but the marriage did not last.

She then married her third husband, Geoffrey Hallowes, another SOE member.

Odette was the first woman to be awarded the George Cross and was also a recipient of an MBE and the Légion d’ honneur. Her medals can be seen today at the Imperial War Museum. Odette Hallowes died in 1995 at the age of 82. Almost 70 years after she joined the SOE, on Feb. 23, 2012, the Royal Mail released a stamp in her honour as part of its Britons of Distinction series.


Images credits:
Creative Commons and Ravensbruek website

Further reading:
Heroes of WWII in France – Females all of them! – Part 2 – Odette Sansom



About the Contributor

Kathryn Gauci

I am a textile designer and author of historical fiction living in Melbourne, Australia. I am also a Francophile and visit France frequently for pleasure and research. My interests range from history to the arts, food, & of course, the French way of life.

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